Shooting Birth for the First Time: What I Learned

Shooting Birth for the First Time: What I Learned

Documenting births is definitely not the type of photography that suits each and every one of us, but for those who are interested, here are a few things I learned from shooting it.

Never in a million years would I have thought to myself I would end up shooting birth at some point in my career. I hadn't quite researched it as a topic nor had I any inherent interest in becoming a birth photographer, mainly due to me not coming across birth photography as a service I could offer. I have always been a social photographer, however. Through my wedding photography work I met someone, also a fellow photographer, who became a dear friend of mine over the time. I can't recall the exact moment our conversations turned from discussing the latest gossip in photography world and the progress of her pregnancy to a point where the question of birth photography was raised. "Would you photograph my birth" is not a question you are generally prepared for.

Because of our close friendship and because I am interested in challenging myself, I agreed. Around that time, I had seen the occasional birth photography posts in a few of the Facebook photography groups that I am a part of. I had seen emotional and soft images, and I had also seen quite raw ones. Honestly, I did not know what to expect, but looking back and evaluating the whole process, here are a few things that you may find useful should you ever wish to try birth photography yourself!

Delivery room door

Emotions

If you are a highly technical photographer, I predict you will struggle with birth photography. It's not a mechanical process, nor is it stylized or planned. There is no time nor space to start setting up lights and to ask the mother to hold her pose for just a moment longer. Birth photography is solely about emotions, and if you are not an emotional photographer, you will struggle to hack it. Sure, you will get away with it for a few bookings, but eventually, it will start to come out.

Any technical issues will become secondary when you are in the moment, and all you will be focusing on is capturing the right moment, the right emotion. When the baby is coming, there is no time to mess around with settings, because you need to be fully present in what you are doing and what moments you are anticipating to capture. In this regard, it doesn't matter what you shoot with, so as long as you are able to intuitively let your camera become your eyes. 

You don't need to be maternal, you don't need to have experienced a birth yourself to be able to document it. I'm certainly neither, but my work heavily focuses on emotions and moments, and having had experience doing that truly helps. The birth you are photographing is not going to follow a predetermined shooting plan, so being able to recognize and pick out special and emotive moments is important.

Prepare

Not going to lie, I wasn't as prepared as I'd like to have been. Without a question, if you are documenting a client's birth, it's important to have your business practices and contract in place. However, when it comes to the actual shooting process, there are a few things you can consider. In my case, the mother sent me a text message in the early hours to say that she was going to the hospital. In my mind, I naturally felt I need to get there as soon as possible. This of course will vary across different births, but I would rather be there early than miss it! With that being said, I arrived at the hospital for around 8 am and didn't leave until 6 or 7 pm, with the actual birth starting around 5 pm. 

Nurse examining an expecting mother in a birthing pool

This meant that I had many hours to spend in the hospital, often on my own. I did not want to be in the mother's delivery room during examinations, and I also wanted to give the expecting couple their privacy. I occasionally came in to take images of the father anxiously waiting; I also took images of the mother going through contractions as she sat in the birthing pool. Other shots included those of the surroundings, what the nurses were doing, and so forth. There was a lot to photograph, but equally, I felt it was not my place to be present in the delivery room all day long.

I wish I had prepared more snacks and had brought something to entertain me through these long hours of being sat outside the delivery room. If I had brought my laptop or a book, I would have been able to pass the time more quickly, but I had even forgotten to bring my mobile phone charger, which of course started to run out of battery after a few hours. Although the hospital had reasonable cafés and a food hall, it was not something I could quickly get to, and I wouldn't want to miss an important moment by being on the other side of the hospital! It is not always the case, but be ready to spend hours waiting on the birth. I have seen some birth photographers who arrive at the hospital only when the mother's cervix is dilated to a certain size. As I did not have any experience in this, I wanted to make sure I arrived in time for me to be ready. Turns out, I had all day to do that!

Be Adaptable

As noted, documenting birth is nothing like photographing a product in a studio. As a photographer, you are and should be the last priority of all involved. Medical staff need to be able to freely work without the photographer getting in the way, and you need to be able to quickly adapt to any situation that may arise. For example, initially, my couple had planned to have a water birth, but that wasn't possible in the end. Therefore, the mother was moved onto a delivery table in the corner of the room. The window blinds got closed and lights got dimmed to the bare minimum to make it more comfortable and natural for the baby, who was arriving shortly. I had to use the most of the low light that was available in the room and increase my ISO as much as possible so my shutter speed wasn't too slow. However, I already knew the images would be edited monochrome, so I didn't mind the noise.

A father comforting a mother about to give birth in hospital

Remember, this moment isn't about you, so you need to be able to think quickly on your feet for whatever is about to happen. Use equipment that you are familiar with so you're able to quickly change between settings and don't have to waste time trying to find your way around the camera menu. Be aware that most, if not all births will have to be shot with natural light. Using flash or a continuous video light would be distracting and invasive for the medical stuff as well as the mother, so don't fear using high ISO for these situations. 

Technicalities aside, you also need to consider situations that may go wrong. It's not something anybody wants to even spare a thought for, but your job as a professional is to handle whatever is thrown at you. This also applies to having a contract in place to cover these possibilities. Nobody can plan how they will respond to situations where the mother or the baby are harmed during the delivery, but it's something you should at least think through beforehand.

Enjoy

Trust me, as I already said, I am the least maternal person I know. But, documenting someone coming into this world is an experience you will not forget. Just because you are a professional, don't fear your feelings. There were moments that overwhelmed me so much I couldn't help but cry, but it won't stop you from shooting. Let these emotions lead you, and I have no doubt that you will create a gallery that the parents will look through every year; I know my friend does.

When you go home and have had a moment to process everything, you will start to realize how lucky you have been to be a part of someone coming into this world. Even if you choose to never shoot a single birth again, it's one of those jobs that will stay with you for the rest of your life. All I can say is, if you have the opportunity to do it, go for it!

Have you shot a birth before or considered it? What are your thoughts on this?

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9 Comments

I would never attempt it. Nobody would want to see photos of the ceiling from where I landed on the floor, having passed out. :-)

Anete Lusina's picture

Ha! I kinda felt I may be like that too but managed to put it all in one brain compartment that didn't let me stop focusing on the job!

When my oldest son was born, I held it in until I got to the parking lot. Luckily it was the middle of the night so nobody saw me puke my guts out! :-)

Geoff Miller's picture

In 1991 I walked into our local photo store to pick up a roll of prints. The clerk took my name, pulled the envelope and said "I hope there wasn't anything important on it... the roll was blank!" I said "No big deal, just the birth of my first child..." I owned a Nikon F3hp at the time, and the motor-drive on it torqued the film pretty hard. If you didn't jam the leader into the take-up spool in a solid manner, it could pull free. That's what happened in my excitement in the delivery room. I was sick to my stomach, but my wife was slightly relieved. Not long before that, it happened at a hockey game I was shooting. I sold the camera after our daughter's birth and moved to a F4s after that!

I've done it and it's probably the most rewarding type of photography for both the family and personally in terms of emotion. To have someone trust you to be the one to be there takes a lot of personal and emotional investment.

I've found doing a follow up the next day to get some soft details of hands, feet, hospital band and moments of baby with parents etc is good. Maybe first bath and change etc if that's happening on the day or two after whenever you follow up.

I've also found that It's definitely easier to know and schedule with an obstetrician to make recommendations to clients that are 1) keen and 2) going for induced and/or planned c sections as your schedule will be a little more refined and it's easier to quote rather than unknown lengths of labor time that I'm sure the family doesn't want to pay for if not much is happening.

I'd attach a couple of images but not sure if it's too intense haha

If you do, please post the "safe" ones first and include a warning before the others. :-)

First let me say that the photographs of the author are tasteful - so my point doesn’t necessarily apply to her.

But I have certain distaste for images that show babies in positions that aren’t their choosing. There’s this particular type of “newborn” photography where babies are being positioned and clothed as if they’re props! My goodness!

So when doing birthings, I would really steer away from images that would otherwise require consent. I mean remember that a baby is a person that may not want the world to see its picture. The second part to this are the parents. I would really make it a point to educate parents about sharing images of their child on social media... when in doubt just don’t.

Studio 403's picture

I have 2 clients who want me to capture births. Never done this before. so a tad nervous. This article is so helpful. Thank you.

I was horrified when I found out the midwife had taken pictured of my daughter's birth. I thought the pictures were gross and I threw them all away. My husband didn't feel the same way, but he wasn't all exposed and ugly. I don't think it's beautiful at all. Maybe a good photographer can make it look a little better. I can't imagine anyone paying to have pictures done. But then, I don't get "baby bump" shots either.